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Northwood: Go back to wood!

May 11th, 2010

Well.. well.. well. What a fun day I’ve had. I spent about eight hours lying on my back in gravel inventing new curses to throw at Northwood after seeing the mess on the bottom of our camper. For future reference, according to the manual, Arctic Fox campers are not designed to be ‘lived in’, have the slide put out without jacks or have any water in any of the tanks while not in a truck bed. Also, their customer service folks have pointed out that ‘no one builds anything square, except maybe a picture frame.’

We had a few problems early on, but they seemed like just small issues. About a year ago, we were at the factory in Oregon and asked them to fix a ground bolt that had sheared off. The service tech pulled the water heater, replaced it and sealed it. He, however, neglected to actually replace the ground bolt. While there, we asked about the reason our camper is not actually square side to side and received the above quote as a response.

Two days ago, our fresh water tank fell through the bottom of the camper. Can you guess what I’m thinking about their overall design and build quality? I called them just to vent, not expecting more than the ‘we know that will break, so we put it in the owner’s manual’. That’s exactly what I got.

Northwood MFG bad weld!

While pulling off the bottom of the camper, I found broken welds in every support throughout the camper. In fact, there was a broken weld directly under… wait for it… nothing. Most of the supports had more than one broken weld… every one of them had at least one weld broken on the passenger side… where the slide is. The average number of broken welds per brace was roughly three.

Most of the broken welds were just broken beads. I only recall seeing a couple where metal had actually sheared. Speaking of the metal, I had to bend a few pieces to get the wiring out of it while working on replacements. I managed to SNAP a piece of the aluminum with nothing but my hands and feet.

So, I have lots of little bruises from lying in gravel, but all six broken and completely under-spec’d braces have been replaced with two by fours. Tomorrow, Jenn gets to help support some shower board material to replace the luan that had to be broken in order to come out and we’ll have an enclosed camper again. Hopefully, nothing moves into our sub-floor in the meantime.

Pile O' broken Northwood underside support crap
Our new underside - courtesy of Johnny!

So, if you’re thinking of buying from Northwood, ask them to send you an owner’s manual so you can read their escape clauses first… and ask them just how many days a year the camper is designed to be used. Sadly, I forgot to ask.

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13 Responses to “Northwood: Go back to wood!”

  1. cyberhobo says:

    Scary. What year is your camper? Our 1999 Lance also has a some mention of not being intended for full time use. I pray for our frame.

  2. johnny says:

    2008. Scary, eh? Next time around, we’ll just build the damn thing ourselves and then I’ll know exactly who to curse when something breaks.

    The good news is your frame is probably still wood in a ’99 model. I don’t recommend pulling the luan and insulation just to check though. major PITA to put it back together later, at least on ours.

    Thankfully, it’s done minus a little time with my old friend the caulk gun. Stronger than designed and with an extra 3/4″ of urethane insulation as long as it was taken to bits anyway. Roughly $100 fix. I shudder to think what a mobile RV tech would charge.

  3. Tony says:

    Don’t feel bad Johnny, 98% of the rigs out there aren’t designed to be lived in. Seriously, even the ones that don’t exclude warranty coverage for full-timers really aren’t built any better from what I’ve seen, they just charge more for a warranty that’ll cover their butts for a couple of years, then you’re on your own anyway.

    They all suck… it’s more of a level of suckdom that sets anyone apart 🙂

  4. Rene says:

    Oh crap. You guys we feel so bad, we’re so sorry. Aggh! Now I’m scared about our AF 5er.

    Where were you when this happened? Where the hell are you now?

    • jenn says:

      I hope it doesn’t, but if anything does happen, you are on your own. Northwood will not help you with structural issues after your warranty period. Thankfully, we were at our summer gig when it happened and Johnny made short work of it.

  5. Dan says:

    Hrmm. I’ve read all your posts, and i was thinking of geting a truck camper myself for eventual part/full timing. would a 5th wheel be a better choice then for actual living?

    • johnny says:

      I think a truck camper is a fine way to go. I think next time around we’ll probably build our own RV in a step van (UPS truck). I also think a class B is a good way to go if you’re comfortable in a truck camper size-wise.

      Fifth wheels are nice because of the living space, but if you are comfortable in a small space, then I’d go smaller. It’s so much easier to get places and maneuver through cities.

      I think a class B might even be the ultimate for people that are OK in small spaces. The added height and weight on truck campers tend to be our limiters.

      Whichever way you go through, the manufacture is probably the biggest issue. I wouldn’t go with another Northwood camper after our issues and the support we’ve received, but I know many people would.

  6. Abase says:

    oh no! I had my heart set on an AF 1140 (2013 or newer model). Maybe I need to check out Lance. Thanks for the info.

    • Hitek Homeless says:

      It looks like they have seen the folly of their welds. It appears that the 2014 utilizes a different welding method. In the 2014 1140 brochure, they mention how they are superior to other builders, because they don’t spot weld as it is weak. Ours was spot welded. Perhaps our post was the reason they canged and our loss is your gain. It is a painfully expensive loss.

      That said. We have not been satisfied with the build quality of our unit. There are a lot of screws that missed their mark, so they aren’t holding anything together. I often find sheared off screw heads rolling around. While it was still under warranty, we had a loose wire grounding out and sparking right next to the propane intake on the water heater. BIG SPARKS! It was very scarey. We had to go in for repairs twice before it was fixed. In critical support locations where they could have used a 12′ sheet of plywood, they used a 4′ piece held to an 8′ by 50 staples instead.

      Under warranty, they patched things that broke again shortly after the warranty was up. When we visited the factory a few months after the warranty period, instead of trying to make things right, they said that “no one builds anything square” and turned their backs on us. They may have even used their pull with Truckcamper Magazine to get the article they wrote about us pulled. It’s no longer there. When asked, TCM says they removed their old articles but ones older than ours are still there.

      The worst part is looking back in old photos, the ones when the camper was only a couple months old never having left the pavement, and seeing the defects that weren’t visible unless you knew what you were looking for. The defects that became heart shattering obvious after the warraty had expired. And how it burns, when I remember asking the guy at the east coast factory why something was a little odd to which he said it wasn’t a problem. I wish I would have pressed it. It was just a tiny glimpse of big problem that would show itself in full later.

    • Hitek Homeless says:

      I cannot, in good faith, suggest an Arctic Fox truck camper to anyone who wants to use it more than a couple of weekends a year.

  7. jdk says:

    I have the exact same issue with my AF 811, in fact your photos of the broken braces look just like my photos. I also noticed lots of broken welds on all braces, not just under the water tank. I thought about replacing the aluminum braces with 2 x4’s as well and I am wondering how yours has held up since replacing with wood? I was a bit concerned about the 2 x 4’s being to rigid under the water tank?

    • jenn says:

      Hi jdk,

      While the wood worked for us, it’s probably not the best solution. I’d suggest contacting Northwood to see if they’ll make things right. I mean, they know that spot welding is a bad idea. That’s why they’ve changed their method. Good luck.

  8. Hannah says:

    You’re right about those arctic fox campers! They are great for a few days though…

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